Bridging a Divide Through Park Design

October 1, 2018, Feature, by Hallie Boyce, RLA

2018 October Feature Bridge Park 410

The 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C.

Over the past 20 years, Washington, D.C., has been experiencing a building boom, but in stark contrast to the city’s overall economic progress, the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River continue to suffer from decades of disinvestment. While many Washingtonians refer to this area as “Anacostia,” there are numerous neighborhoods that border the river in both Wards 7 and 8. During the era of urban renewal, the construction of regional highways along the river’s eastern edge physically cut off these communities from this natural resource, which used to be a place for fishing and swimming.

Today, these neighborhoods still lack access to the critical amenities of healthy food sources, sufficient social and medical services, and safe places for recreation. These Wards have some of the highest unemployment, obesity and illness rates in the city. Neighborhoods like Congress Heights, Historic Anacostia, Fairlawn and others are also feeling the pressures of gentrification.

It is within this social, environmental and economic context that the 11th Street Bridge Park project has been conceived by Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR), a visionary nonprofit based east of the river in Ward 8. Co-founded by Skip McMahon and led by Rahsaan Bernard, BBAR runs the Townhall Education Arts and Recreation Center (THEARC), a consortium of organizations that provides access to high-quality educational, health, cultural, recreational and social services to improve the quality of life for children and adults living east of the Anacostia. Scott Kratz, vice president of BBAR and director of the Bridge Park project, has been a tireless champion since its inception and is joined by a talented team that is working toward opening the Bridge Park in 2023.

During the 17th century, the Anacostia River was 40 feet deep and teeming with fish; its shores were lush woodlands. For much of the 20th century, as with most American cities, industrial sites and landfills dominated the waterfront, leeching contaminants into the water and soil. Today, the Anacostia, often referred to as “DC’s Forgotten River,” flows from Prince George’s County, Maryland, into our nation’s capital, where it joins with the Potomac River. Its 176-square-mile watershed largely sits within the state of Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay drainage basin, which, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, is considered one of the most degraded waterways in the United States.

The city’s combined sewer system, increasingly taxed by population growth and the effects of climate change, still dumps raw sewage directly into the river daily. At the behest of grassroots organizations, like the Anacostia Watershed Society, the District of Columbia has been working over the past 30 years to address this issue. Recent efforts by DC Water in 2018 to build new storage capacity will redirect 80 percent of this polluted water through wastewater treatment facilities before releasing it back into the Potomac River. Another ongoing water-quality issue, however, is the flow of trash and debris flowing into the Anacostia via tributaries from throughout its massive watershed.

Early Community Engagement

In 2011, work on the project began with a monumental community engagement process. More than 200 neighborhood meetings were held with residents and other stakeholders on both sides of the river. These early conversations provided the framework and programmatic basis for a design competition held in 2014 by BBAR, which will manage the Bridge Park when it opens to the public.

BBAR formed a Design Oversight Committee of residents, community leaders, business owners and adjacent landowners to ensure the community’s aspirations would continue to be prioritized throughout the competition phase. Competition teams — including OMA+OLIN — gained valuable feedback from this committee during the design process, which informed the most responsive proposals.

A Community-Responsive Design

Ultimately, the public, the Design Oversight Committee and the formal jury of design professionals selected OMA+OLIN’s proposal: an iconic “X” structure constructed on top of repurposed bridge piers that support the park and allow it to float over the river. The design team stretched “stepping stones” of the community’s desired program — including an amphitheater for performance, a café, community gardens, a play area, an environmental education center, waterfalls and planting — across the Anacostia River.

The design team carefully considered the placement of each programmatic element to ensure a true “Place of Exchange” for residents and visitors from both sides of the river. Given the presence of the Capitol Riverfront Park and its existing amenities west of the river, many of the key amenities for the 11th Street Bridge Park were located toward the eastern half of the bridge to encourage visitors to visit businesses and cultural sites in Historic Anacostia and the adjacent neighborhoods. In addition, the team designed the entrance from Good Hope Road to be a welcoming approach to the Bridge Park, with picnic areas, a canoe/kayak launch and demonstration gardens associated with the Environmental Education Center.

The project’s design integrates four key goals: to connect neighborhoods that have historically been divided by the river, to reengage residents with the river and educate the public about the importance of ecosystem health, to improve residents’ health by providing safe places for play and exercise, and to encourage equitable and inclusive economic growth.

Key to the design is Anaquash Plaza, a multifunctional space at the center of the structure. Its name is derived from the Nacotchtank Indian term meaning “village trading center.” A yearly calendar of community events will attract residents from both sides of the river, as well as regional visitors and tourists from around the world. At the ends of the crossing pedestrian paths, visitors will experience iconic views along the river, west toward Capitol Hill and east toward Cedar Hill, the historic home of writer, statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who crossed the river each day on his way to Capitol Hill.

Healthy River, Healthy Community

Human health and ecosystem health are indelibly interconnected, a relationship that the Bridge Park design team sought to embody in the design. The Bridge Park will allow visitors to easily cross the river and will provide a key moment in the existing Anacostia Riverwalk Trail system, a continuous 20-mile trail on both sides of the river. It will include walking and running loops, as well as places for play and group exercise. The Environmental Education Center will track the status of the Anacostia River’s health and the many private and public efforts to clean the Anacostia. The center will demonstrate multiple green-infrastructure strategies that city residents can support toward further cleaning the waters, encouraging the public to become active stewards of their riverways.

Equitable Development Plan

Given Washington, D.C.’s rapidly changing racial and economic demographics and based on the early community engagement, concerns have been raised about the potential displacement of nearby residents. As rents double or triple in the center of the city, residents east of the river fear their own neighborhoods will fall prey to development pressures that will push them further out to the suburbs.

Many people have expressed anxiety that the residents who helped to shape the vision for the Bridge Park would not be able to remain in their communities and benefit from the realization of the park. To proactively address this challenge and shape future change and economic growth, BBAR enlisted the help of Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) DC, a community development organization that has had a strong presence in Washington, D.C., for the past 30 years.

In the fall of 2014, LISC DC worked with BBAR staff to create an Equitable Development Task Force consisting of research and planning experts who helped craft an Equitable Development Plan. Based on demographic data and work sessions with residents, community leaders and government officials, this task force defined four focus areas that the Bridge Park and its partners can follow: workforce development, small business enterprise, housing and cultural equity strategies. LISC DC made a financial commitment of $50 million toward supporting these programs through its “Elevating Equity” initiative to encourage inclusive development within a 1-mile radius of the future park site.

To ensure action was taken in each of the four areas, a series of strategies and a schedule were developed, along with measurable goals determined by senior researchers at the Urban Institute. “This has become so much more than a park!” says Kratz. “By working early, intentionally and with the community, we aim to ensure local residents can stay and thrive in place.” To date, more than 325 Ward 8 residents have participated in a Ward 8 Home Buyers Club, funded by BBAR, and 61 Ward 8 renters are now homeowners, building generational family wealth. In addition, BBAR recently began construction training workshops to ensure that residents can financially benefit from this new civic space.

Community Land Trust

Vaughn Perry, manager of the Equitable Development Plan, has been working with partners at City First Homes and an advisory board composed of primarily Ward 8 residents to also create a Community Land Trust (CLT), a key recommendation of the Bridge Park’s Equitable Development Plan. The CLT goals are threefold: to preserve affordability, prevent displacement and empower the community for the future. The CLT owns and stewards the land, providing affordability controls by addressing income eligibility, resale prices and processes. Homeowners and renters pay a land lease fee to the CLT, which covers this stewardship and operations.

By owning and controlling the land, the CLT can create both rental and for-sale properties at reduced prices, with a focus on capturing the value of public investment for long-term community benefit. By providing permanent affordability, the CLT enables long-term residents to remain in their communities and reduces absentee ownership and speculation. A critical piece of the creation of the CLT is that its board primarily consists of community leaders and residents, along with housing professionals. Recently, board members named the trust the Douglass Community Land Trust, in honor of Frederick Douglass, and hired its first executive director.

Early Wins

The Bridge Park team will commence design in fall 2018, but BBAR has already managed to leverage the vision for the park to positively impact adjacent neighborhoods, particularly those east of the river. In the long, often arduous course of taking a new park from vision to reality, small and affordable, often temporary programs or installations can build community goodwill, create positive buzz and support fundraising goals, while a full park build-out is underway. These “early wins” not only enable an organization to cultivate community support and build greater trust between the public/private partnership and residents, but they also give the design team the opportunity to test out a variety of programmatic ideas to fully gauge community interest and reactions.

For the past four years, BBAR, in partnership with the National Park Service and the National Cherry Blossom Festival, has held the annual Anacostia River Festival at the site of the future Bridge Park. This event has grown to more than 9,000 attendees who come to the river’s edge on its east bank to canoe/kayak, bike, dance, eat or simply enjoy the views along the river. The festival partners with more than 60 local nonprofits, features works by local artists and hosts educational programs to engage attendees in discussion about the river’s ecology, conveying the transformative potential for this project.

Other early efforts include the Bridge Park Plots program, which has realized community gardens with churches, nonprofits and schools on both sides of the Anacostia River. Working with both the Kresge Foundation and the University of the District of Columbia’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences, BBAR has built more than 200 raised beds and three fruit orchards. UDC has offered training courses for residents to earn an urban agriculture certificate, has launched a series of healthy cooking classes and has distributed food. This is just one example of how BBAR has leveraged the existing network of nonprofits and community organizations to test future park programs and gather lessons learned.

Another exciting effort is the work with local artists whose works celebrate local culture and the river itself. During the design competition, the priority arose to more strongly connect the Bridge Park to Historic Anacostia. In 2017, BBAR installed a light installation under the I-295 highway overpass — an important achievement toward that original goal. Local photographer Bruce McNeil, who has been documenting the Anacostia River and its environment for the past 23 years, is the first artist whose work was celebrated. In addition, Tendani Mpulubusi-El, an east-of-the-river interdisciplinary artist, has also worked to realize art installations created by local high school students on both sides of the river.

Landscape as Catalyst

Through the example of the 11th Street Bridge Park, it is clear that it takes ongoing collaboration on the part of multiple stakeholders to realize a contemporary park that is responsive to both the place and the community, while acting as a catalyst for positive change. In every community, no matter how challenged environmentally, economically or socially, there are people who, when brought together as a network, have the capacity and passion to achieve successful public spaces that provide a better quality of life for all. Park planners, designers and managers must anticipate change that may not have been planned for, namely, displacement. There is no single effort that can prevent displacement, but multiple efforts involving the community and public/private partnerships must be enacted to meet this challenge, one of today’s most critical urban issues.

Hallie Boyce, RLA, is a Partner at the OLIN Studio.